Electron Dance
5Apr/11Off

Kill Screen: Roadkill or To Kill For?

I read the second issue of Kill Screen in a couple of weeks. This is somewhat important.

My reading has been at an all-time low since Atonement sent me into a bout of catatonia three years ago. Nowadays, I spend most of my time commuting between the congested life-train stations of sleep, children, web catch-up and writing Electron Dance. Shit, there's work in there somewhere too, I just know it.

I Like

But there's plenty to like in Kill Screen. Simon Ferrari's coverage of Play The News, a project to create games to supplement topical news stories, was fascinating. It also opened my eyes to the uneasy open conflict between product journalism (packaged, chunky reportage) and process journalism (iterative, by-the-minute updates). Brendon Keogh's piece on playing real-life Halo Capture the Flag, written for story value rather than gaming insight, was also entertaining.

Electron Dance friend Kent Sutherland coaxes an interesting interview out of one of the creators of The Oregon Trail. The relevance of the game was lost on me: I don't think The Oregon Trail was a hit in UK schools but I enjoyed the article for its historical nostalgia, its sense of games crawling out of the primeval swamp, unsure of what they were... or could become. It amuses me that an original acoustic phone modem needed to be described in the article but, you know what, I shouldn't be amused because it just reveals how elderly I am.

Laura "Laura Michet Hates Me" Michet expands on her Second Person Shooter write-up of NASA's Moonbase Alpha for Kill Screen, talking to Daniel Laughlin at NASA Learning Technologies to contrast her reactions to the game with the project's aspirations.

Mitu Khandaker writes about the relevance of gaming academics, which struck me on first glance as a self-indulgent exercise in catharsis, yet it went beyond a personal conundrum to make some good points. She drew in others to address this point such as Dr. Dan Pinchbeck who was behind Dear Esther (interesting) and Korsakovia (frightening but infuriating). I was persuaded by Mitu's proposal: gaming academics should be experimenting with games other people won't try. That's how they should forward the industry, instead of being analytical flotsam and jetsam drifting aimlessly across an ocean of commercial game output.

David Wolinsky's interview with the Marcello Simonetta, the historian attached to Assassin's Creed II, was quite revealing although I felt like it came to a juddering halt too early. One of the tag lines teased about historical accuracy being over-rated in games yet the interview didn't dig deep into it other than to comment it had been done for both fun and technical reasons. I'd like to have seen the question: is this a road we're happy to keep coasting down, throwing away educational opportunities? I don't want to find ourselves stuck with gross scientific distortions like The Day After Tomorrow being Hollywood's greatest contribution to Joe Public's understanding of modern science.

Brian Taylor covers something many of us feel but rarely talk about: how we learn maps in games and make them real environments in our heads. The stunning point Taylor makes, something I'd never considered before, was that rather than appreciate game maps as approximations for real-world spaces, it's better to say they are abstractions of such, containing sufficient detail to suggest place and location. He compares them to Harry Beck's original design for the London Underground Map. This is why I am buying Kill Screen.

I No Like

Of course, it's not all enlightenment and touching the face of God, there were disappointments as well. Ryan Bradley's piece on infant learning really didn't seem to go anywhere for me. And Rob Dubbin's interview with a top Starcraft player who happens to be a hedge fund trader tried to forward a theory that these things were related, but it just didn't amount to anything substantive (hey, it's possible I am biased, considering I work in the same industry).

I was also a bit distanced by Ed Fries' love of Atari 2600 minimalist programming. Now, I was made in this code era - the Atari 8-bit 6502 machine language environment was not too dissimilar to the 2600 straitjacket if you really wanted to push the system's limits. Hammering code to within an inch of its life (you should see my hacked-to-fuck memory copy routine to maximise speed) was normal and this was something I had to unlearn when entering modern software development. Code that was tiny and tight was also... unreadable and unmaintainable.

We used to pat ourselves on the back that a real programmer wrote things in just three lines with all the coolest neat-ass tricks and system hacks. This is a very old perspective. Modern programming languages allow you to express yourself with gusto and verbosity. Second, this very subject of creativity through constraints is handled with more breadth and depth by Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort in their brilliant, fantastic book Racing the Beam. This is not to knock Ed's achievement of Halo 2600.

I Heart

Being only in its second issue, Kill Screen is still picking up its stride. All of the interviews felt like they smashed into a brick wall rather than reach a conclusion - I was constantly looking for a page I thought I'd missed only to discover the page numbers tracked perfectly. To mitigate this they need to append an end-sign to the closing paragraph of each article. (Stop Press! Issue 3, which I received recently, does exactly this.)

Now since the magazine launched last year, Kill Screen has started pumping out online material. I imagine this is to encourage people to visit and eventually buy the magazine For The Real Deal. And GAH! someone over there has got a chronic addiction to massive images (Exhibit A, your honour). In a more worrying move, they've started doing short reviews which feels so anti-Kill Screen, especially after I bought into their magazine manifesto. Even worse, each review sports a double-digit score which feels so yesterday's teenage game journalism. I get it already; they want to be listed on Metacritic.

But I would put all this aside. There's much to praise and Kill Screen the print magazine is a dense thing, containing far more material than you'd expect. Some may quibble over the $20 price tag, but this is some good reading right here.

I read Kill Screen issue 2 pretty quickly. This is somewhat important. I find it difficult to get the time andconcentration to read these days, finding myself commuting between the congested rail stations of sleep, children, webcatch-up and writing Electron Dance. Shit, there's work in there somewhere too, I just know it.

There's plenty to like. Simon Ferrari's coverage of Play The News, a project to create games to supplement topical

news stories, was fascinating. As was Brendon Keogh's piece on playing real-life Capture the Flag with his friends,

played for its story value and not to teach us something about games.

Electron Dance friend Kent Sutherland manages an interesting interview with one of the creators of The Oregon Trail. I

enjoyed this for its historical nostalgia, its sense of games just crawling out of the swamps unsure of what they

were... or could be. And it amuses me that he described the original acoustic phone modem but I shouldn't be amused

because it's an indicator of how old I am. Sadly, the relevance of the game was lost on me: I don't think The Oregon

Trail was a hit in UK schools.

And Laura "Laura Michet Hates Me" Michet extends her Second Person Shooter write-up of NASA's Moon [game] for Kill

Screen, which includes words from the NASA team developing the game.

[mitu] article about the relevance of a PhD in gaming research at first struck me as a rather self-indulgent exercise

in catharsis, yet it went on to make some good points, pulling in other academic gaming shining lights such as Dr. Dan

Pinchbeck of Dear Esther and Korsakovia fame. I came away thinking they are right: gaming academics should be trying

to make the games other people won't try. That's how they should forward the industry, instead of acting like

analytical flotsam and jetsam drifting in an ocean of commercial game output.

An interview with the historian attached to Assassin's Creed II was quite revealing although felt like it stopped too

early; one of the tag lines teased historical inaccuracy and the interview really didn't get deep into that other than

to comment what had been done, and that had been done for gaming and technical content. I'd like to have seen the

question: is this a road we're happy to keep coasting down?

Trading Spaces talked about how we learn maps in games and how they become very real for us. The absolute winning

point here was something I'd never thought of before. Rather than see game maps as approximations for a real-world

space, it's better to say they are abstractions of one, much like Harry Beck's Underground Map. (quote) My eyes really

opened at this.

There were disappointments as well. The article on infant learning really didn't seem to go anywhere for me. And the

interview with a top Starcraft player who happens to be a hedge fund trader tried to push a theory that these things

were related, but it was a point that came off as coincedental. I was also a bit distanced by Ed Fries' love of Atari

2600 minimalist code, because of two things.

Quick time out on this one. First, I was born in this code, hammering code to within an inch of its life (you should

see the hacked-to-fuck memory copy machine language I wrote for maximum speed) and one of the things I had to unlearn

was that code had to be tiny and tight and... unreadable. Modern languages allow you to express yourself with

verbosity. Second, this very subject of creativity through constraints is handled with more breadth and depth by Ian

Bogost and Nick Montfort in their fantastic book Racing the Beam.

Being only their second issue, Kill Screen is still picking up its stride. Somehow all of the interviews just seemed

to stop - I was constantly looking for a page I thought I'd missed only to discover the page number didn't jump. What

they need, to mitigate this, is an icon to indicate the end of an article, to provide closure. (Issue 3, which arrived

recently, does exactly this.) [article terminator]

Since the magazine went live, the web site has started publishing online material. I imagine this is to encourage

people to visit and eventually buy the magazine For The Cooler Stuff. In a more worrying move, they've started doing

short reviews which feels so anti-Kill Screen. Even worse, each review sports a double-digit score which simply looks

so wrong against the stature of what Kill Screen was trying to be. I get it; they want to be on Metacritic.

But there's much to commend here. Kill Screen is dense and contains a lot of material. You may quibble over the $20 fee and the silly web pages with images that take up 75% of NORAD's to display correctly, but this is some good shit right here.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

Filed under: Longform Comments Off

Electron Dance Highlights

Comments (17) Trackbacks (0)
  1. Thanks for the heads up on this – I’ve not heard of it before. I’ll follow the website for a bit and see if the writing tastes nice…

  2. (Also, yes, ugh, scoring systems. They’re for people with low levels of reading comprehension, right?)

  3. Ahh, the London Underground map. A thing of beauty. If only London looked that tidy.

    Me and my girlfriend discuss spaces sometimes because she has difficulty ‘building’ them in her mind. I remember when she took me to the university gardens in Oxford (where she’s lived most of her life, no not in the gardens, in Oxford silly) and when we decided to leave she didn’t know where we’d came in from. I insisted that we’d walked past a particular tree and from a certain angle and she was adamant we’d came in elsewhere. I was right, and I’d never been there before. I’ve watched her walk through the same room over and over again in System Shock 2 and not realise she’d been there before. I remember her leaving a building in Resident Evil 4, walking across the courtyard in front of it, turning around and looking at said building as if it was a totally different one; merely turning around had disoriented her. It seems as though her head doesn’t map anything as she moves around so these virtual (sometimes real) spaces just slosh about. I find it fascinating, if a little irritating to watch ;-)

    More OT: gah. More things to read?

  4. I’m some way through Issue 3 and I’m still finding it to my liking… I’ll probably write it up in a few weeks or so.

    Gregg, you should totally write up your gf’s map blindness under the heading “Women Can’t Read Maps For Shit”. It would work well as part of a series of articles called “The Outrageous Sexists”.

  5. Man, it is difficult to balance that sort of thing, the fact that you are finding highs and lows might be indicating that it is hitting enough different points. Although the interviews going nowhere is one of the reasons I stopped reading them unless they involve Swery65, Keita Takahashi or Clint Hocking.

    As for the score thing, meh, if you are trying to make money then you have to go where there are hits. I really, really hate Metacritic.

  6. Shit, I need that ‘Toxic Genesis does what Nintendon’t’ T-Shirt.

  7. I’m reading everything out of completeness, just like I do with the internet. Only 6 billion pages left to go.

    Another preview of issue #3: the interview with Al Lowe is a lot of fun – and this is coming from someone who has never played any of the Leisure Suit Larry games.

  8. Agreed 100%, HM. I like Kill Screen, I think it does fill a worthwhile niche, but not everything in there is perfect yet. Great production values and intellectual/scholarly writing about games is something the industry and art form need. And despite the digification of everything, there’s a cachet and gravitas to the print medium.

  9. If I had the disposable income, I’d be big into appreciating quality magazines (and this article would’ve added Kill Screen to my collection). Hardcore Gaming 101’s blog is host to a good deal of magazine reviewing, since obviously you can never have enough web catch-up.

    http://blog.hardcoregaming101.net/search/label/games%20magazines

  10. @Steerpike: Are you tempted to contribute?

    @BeamSplashX: On the up-side, having no disposable income means you actually get to play games. I just get to read and write about them. Well, that’s not true, is it? I managed to play Christine Love’s new one this week and got something substantial written up on “don’t take it personally babe it ain’t about you”.

  11. HM: I am tempted though I haven’t gone through the motions of getting in touch with them yet. I’ve been buried under “writing scholarly shit about games” for like a year and a half now and I need to take a break, write about, like, boobs and stuff.

    “don’t take it personally babe” is an incredible game. The RPS review made a great point about ages of consent in various parts of the world. Anyone who hasn’t played it should. It has a lot to say, and it can be very moving.

  12. Steerpike, if there’s one thing Electron Dance has a blind spot for, it’s definitely boobs. I can see I’m missing a category here.

    I love “don’t take it personally” – some of the characterisation and writing is really excellent – and have some problems with it. Well, I’ll rip into it wholesale next week. No point giving away my secrets three days in advance.

  13. My blog welcomes you back, by the way. I’m only saying that here for the whole world to see that Harbour Master is a man that makes good on his promises, esquire.

  14. I’ll confess, I scanned this post for mention of my article in issue 2. Alas, alack, no such luck! I won’t hold it against you though (not for long anyway). Issue 2 was really good, and it gave me a real sense that this was a magazine with a real reason to exist.

    Yep! That’s right, I was really sceptical when it started but just look at me now…

  15. Ben. Confession accepted. You are absolved, my son.

    I was secretly harbouring a grudge against your FUEL article because I put one on Electron Dance around the same time KS #2 was published. Of course, mine wasn’t about the Australian outback. BUT STILL.

  16. Can we have turn the grudge into a blood feud? I’ve always wanted a writing nemesis but everyone who writes about games is too nice in person to hold a proper hatred against. Yep, even the douchy writers tend to be nice people.

  17. I might be up for a blood feud, I’ll have to check my diary. However, anyone who read The Aspiration will now I’m a total wuss in real life. I work on a trading desk, though, so maybe that counts for something.

    I have already got you lined up for a mention in an article I’ve been mulling over for three months. So you can brace yourself for an attack that is both outrageous and insulting.

    (well, probably not)


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